WALTER TEVIS

There are usually only two types of responses when the name Walter Tevis comes up. People either tell me they have never read his work, or they say “I love Walter Tevis. Love his books.” So if you are not in that second group yet, read some Tevis and find out for yourself.

The American author Walter S. Tevis, Jr. was born in San Francisco in 1928. When he was ten, his family moved to Kentucky, but Walter was ill so they left him in a children’s convalescent home for a year. When he was well enough to travel, he journeyed to Kentucky and rejoined his family. The culture shock differences between city of light San Francisco and rural Kentucky made him feel like he was a visitor from some other planet. Years later, in an interview, Tevis said that his novel THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, about a visitor from another planet who finds himself in rural Kentucky, was “a disguised autobiography”.

After serving in WWII, Walter Tevis attended the University of Kentucky, where he got his Master’s degree in 1954. His writing career fell into two separate periods. The first was from 1955 to 1963. He published his first short story in 1954 and wrote many more stories and two books, THE HUSTLER in 1959 and THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH in 1963. Both of them were successfully filmed and both of them richly deserve their reputations as iconic classics

Tevis then taught Creative Writing at Ohio University from 1965 to 1978. He did not publish any books during that period. Tevis began to notice to his horror that his college students were often illiterate. The education system had not prepared them to at least get by in a college literature class. This inspired him to write his next book, MOCKINGBIRD. His working title for the book was THE MAN WHO COULD READ. The story takes place in a future where robots control the government, and human beings live drug-numbed lives in a society with no books. MOCKINGBIRD is a love story and a work of science fiction genius. Tevis left Ohio and moved to New York City to be a writer again for a second period from 1980 to 1984. He published three more novels and one short story collection. He died in New York in 1984. His final book THE COLOR OF MONEY bookended his career as a sequel to his first book THE HUSTLER. Tevis wrote a screenplay for it, but after his death the film’s director, Martin Scorsese, chose to throw it out and use a new screenplay with a completely different story.

Collecting Walter Tevis in Paperback

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THE HUSTLER (1959)

First PB; Dell D434, 1961. Cover art by Clark Hulings. Movie tie-in (MTI).

THE HUSTLER is an amazing first novel, an immediate instant classic told in a hardboiled “pool hall” style, peopled with realistic poolroom denizens.

Young hustler Fast Eddie Felson sets his sights on beating the best in the country, Minnesota Fats.

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Ace UK H519, 1961. British movie tie-in is the first British paperback edition. Paul Newman and Piper Laurie are depicted on the cover.

Robert Rossen’s film captured the desperate world of the book and received nine Academy Award nominations, winning for Cinematography and Art Design. Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Piper Laurie and George C. Scott were all nominated for acting.

In the UK, Paul Newman won the Bafta Award for his performance as Eddie Felson.

Dell 3940, 1964. MTI.

THE HUSTLER was filmed in 1961. It was a huge success and was re-released in spring 1964, when Dell issued this second printing with a new MTI photo cover of Newman and Gleason. The paperback has remained a collectible ever since.

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Xerox, 1973. THE HUSTLER has remained in print for decades. There are over a dozen different editions, with publication dates covering each decade from the sixties through today.

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9780380008605: Hustler

Avon 31278, 1976.

After THE HUSTLER was a success, a man appeared on American television saying he was Minnesota Fats, the hustler Tevis had based his book around. Tevis responded in 1976: “I once saw a fat pool player with a facial tic. I once saw another who was physically graceful. Both were minor pool hustlers…Both seemed loud and vain – with little dignity and grace, unlike my fat pool player. After THE HUSTLER one of them claimed to ‘be’ Minnesota Fats. That is ridiculous. I made up Minnesota Fats – name and all – as surely as Disney made up Donald Duck.”

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 Alpha Books, Oxford University Press, 1979. UK.

Abridged edition edited by David Fickling.

Warner 0-446-32355-1, 1984.

This edition was published as a companion piece to Warner’s 1984 paperback THE COLOR OF MONEY, the sequel to THE HUSTLER

In an early draft of the manuscript now held at the University of Kentucky, Eddie’s opponent is “New York Fats”, lending credence to the author’s claim that he made up the character Minnesota Fats.

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Pan 28637, 1987. UK.

At first glance the novels of Walter Tevis appear to be about different worlds – pool hustlers, a visitor from another planet, a chess prodigy. But as you read them you recognize they all share characters who are all alone in this world and obsessed, driven to succeed at some seemingly impossible task, pushing on against all odds.

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Pan 28637, 1987. Paul Newman photo cover. UK.

Twenty-six years after the book was published and twenty-four years after the movie was released, the words “classic” and “legendary” perfectly describe this achievement.

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Abacus, 1990. UK.

TV Guide gave a two-word description of the movie THE HUSTLER that perfectly captures the whole experience: “dark stunner”. They also suggest that this was the movie that made Paul Newman an “overnight superstar”.

Bloomsbury, 1998. UK

Bloomsbury Film Classics.

Bloomsbury Film Classics were a recommended series of reprints of some great books that had all been turned into classic movies. Other books in this series include PSYCHO, STRAW DOGS, BULLITT, SERPICO, MARATHON MAN, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, GOODFELLAS, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, SHAFT and DELIVERANCE. 

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Da Capo, 2002. Thunder’s Mouth Press.

Today we are all familiar with the world of THE HUSTLER and the countless movies and books it inspired. But looking back at the initial reviews of the book there was a sense that something new was being uncovered for the first time. It was the look and the feel of the movie that struck audiences, which is why I think it won Oscars for Art direction and for the cinematography of the legendary Eugen Schufftan (inventor of the Schufftan Process).

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Bloomsbury 0-7475-8283-1, 2005.UK.

Bloomsbury re-issued many of the books from this series in the 2000’s in digest size with new covers. And they added titles like VERTIGO and CAPE FEAR.

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Penguin, 2009. UK.

Fast Eddie Felson was a new breed of American antihero, not really a nice guy, but a compelling and magnetic man nonetheless. We saw his likes again in books and movies such as THE CINCINNATI KID, where poker was the game instead of pool. The original 1965 New York Times review of THE CINCINNATI KID said ‘the film pales beside THE HUSTLER, to which it bears a striking similarity of theme and characterization”.

Penguin UK.

This cover is also used on the Audio DC.

Paul Newman is so deeply tied to this book that his face appears on eleven of the sixteen paperback covers shown here, and countless foreign editions.

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Orion UK, 2015. W&N Modern Classics. Also available as an e-book.

The latest incarnation of a perennial classic.

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THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, – 1963

PBO (Paperback Original): Gold Medal k1276. Cover art by The Dillons.

To the delight of paperback enthusiasts everywhere, two of Walter Tevis’s seven books were paperback originals. This is the first, a science fiction classic from the best publisher of American originals.

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Lancer 74650, not dated (1970).

On the surface a story about a visitor from another planet, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH exists on more than one level. It’s also a wry commentary on the human condition. Norman Spinrad said of it, “Realistic enough to become a metaphor for something inside us all, some existential aloneness.”

Pan 0330246798, 1976. UK MTI.

Illustration by George Underwood.

The UK movie paperback is also the first publication of this book in Great Britain. David Bowie was perfectly cast in the film by visionary director Nicolas Roeg.

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Avon 27276, 1976.  The American MTI edition with David Bowie cover photo.

With his heterochromia and his ethereal magnetism, David Bowie seemed at times like an alien being anyway, so having him play Thomas Newton here was a stroke of brilliance. He acted in a few more films but this was perhaps his most memorable movie role.

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Alpha Books, Oxford University Press, 1979. UK

Abridged edition “adapted by David Fickling”. 96 pages. Alpha Books were marketed to educators and reading teachers.

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Bantam 14274, 1981.

With their success in 1981 with MOCKINGBIRD, Bantam secured the rights to bring out a new edition of Tevis’s 1963 “science fiction classic”.

In the summer of 2019, the CBS All Access streaming service announced they had ordered a new series of television shows based on THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH, produced by “Star Trek: Discovery” veterans Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet. The writer-producers said they would “modernize and reimagine” the story.

Dell Laurel 35281, 1986.

Television had attempted to remake the story once before, in a 1987 TV movie that was not reviewed kindly. It was the pilot for a series that was not picked up. The writers added a young son for the woman Newton befriends, played by ‘Star Trek’s Wil Wheaton, thereby changing the story into something else, kind of a different take on THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL

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Abacus, 1988. UK.

Another way to read THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH is to read it as a commentary on man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. As Newton, who means no harm and kills no earthlings, is tortured and suffers at the hands of his inquisitors, he takes on a Christ-like Passion. It is a heart-wrenching book, an unforgettable story.

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Del Rey 0345431618, 1999.

Del Rey is an imprint of Ballantine Books.

“Those who know THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH only from the film version are missing something. This is one of the finest science fiction novels of its period.” – J.R. Dunn.

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Bloomsbury 2000. UK. Bloomsbury Film Classics.

Two covers seen. A special edition was a bonus included in the November 2000 issue of Sight & Sound Magazine.

Del Rey 034549010X, 2005.

This edition of the book was included in the 2005 Criterion Collection DVD box set of the film, and was also published in hardcover.

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Penguin, 2010. UK.

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH qualifies for this “modern classic” designation. It is heartbreaking and uplifting, scary and sad, thought-provoking and moving. It is obviously the work of an author of inestimable talents.

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Orion 1473213118, 2016. UK. Gollancz SF Masterworks series.

Throughout the 21st century, Penguin UK and Orion UK have constantly championed the re-issuing of the best books from both the United Kingdom and the United States. They have definitely been the ones keeping Tevis in print. And I continue to believe more each year that they are putting their American competitors to shame. 

   

MOCKINGBIRD, - 1980

First PB: Bantam 14144-9, 1981. Cover art by Lou Feck.

Seventeen years after his previous book, Walter Tevis wrote MOCKINBIRD. It was Tevis himself who explained in interviews the reason for the seventeen-year hiatus: a “serious drinking problem”. Tevis quit his teaching job and moved to New York City to be a writer again. Over the next four years he published three more books and an anthology. Two of those books are now acknowledged as masterpieces.

MOCKINGBIRD was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 1980.

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2nd PB: Bantam 1414409, 1985.

MOCKINGBIRD is set in a dystopian Manhattan in the 24th century. The once-great city lies in ruins. Human beings are slowly going extinct. One of the leaders of the robot University, Dean Robert Spofforth, last of the Make Nine Robots, hires a human named Paul Bentley to work at a job very few people still know how to do. Paul had been trained to be a reader. There aren’t many books left, but Paul studies and learns more about reading from an ingenious source: the titles of old silent movies.

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Corgi 055-2123560, 1984. First UK PB.

Exploring the city, Paul meets Mary Lou, who hides out at the Bronx Zoo.

 The world is very slowly dying. No babies are being born. The remaining people are kept docile with drugs and “quick sex” by the robots. Self-immolation is a popular method of escaping from the anguish of living in such a world. Paul and Mary Lou are both iconoclasts because they think for themselves, and when Mary Lou becomes pregnant, Paul is exiled to prison. His escape and long journey back to Mary Lou is the heart of MOCKINGBIRD.

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Del Rey 0345432626, 1999.

Like many books about the future, MOCKINBGIRD has much to say about how we live now. As Paul learns more forgotten history through his studies, he finds copies of THE BIBLE and GONE WITH THE WIND and other books: “As well as I understand it, Jesus claimed to be the son of God, the one who was supposed to have made heaven and earth. That perplexes me and makes me feel that Jesus was unreliable. Still, he seems to have known things that others did not know and was not a silly person, like those in GONE WITH THE WIND, or a murderously ambitious one, like the American presidents.”

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2007. 

Like all great books this one can be appreciated on different levels by different readers. For me, there is spirituality in this story. You may enjoy a completely different take on it. In what surely must have been a swipe at repressive fundamentalist Christianity, Paul in his travels home comes across a religious group that claims to worship Jesus. They just seem to have forgotten his original message and, not having anyone who can read their Bible, they twist and subvert the original intent. When they meet Paul they first try to throw him into their pit of fire. He saves himself by reading their Bible to them.

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Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2007. Cover variant.

MOCKINBIRD is in the same genre as FAHRENHEIT 451 and the movie THE BOOK OF ELI. All of these stories imagine a future with no books. It’s a frightening concept because reading is so intrinsically intertwined with freedom and art and creativity.  Gutenberg revolutionized the world with a printing press that would enable the common people to read the Bible and think for themselves and start a Reformation. The death of Gutenberg’s invention represents an end to such thinking and an end to freedom.

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FAR FROM HOME, 1981

First PB is also first UK pb. Corgi 0552124044, 1984.

Tevis collected all thirteen of his science fiction short stories into one book, FAR FROM HOME. Some of the stories are from his first period, when he wrote for science fiction magazines in the late 50’s. Other stories, from the 80’s period, are darker and more analytical. “The Apotheosis of Myra” is a companion piece to THE STEPS OF THE SUN. “Out of Luck” is about an alcoholic ex-art professor who has moved to New York to paint. But he keeps seeing the same person over and over and over. Is it a hallucination, or is something trying to tell him something?

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Omnibus edition: with THE STEPS OF THE SUN - Gollancz, 2016.

One of the stories is about a guy who gets a phone call from himself in the future. Another story finds a whale in an Arizona public swimming pool. His richly humorous stories about Farnsworth the inventor include “The Big Bounce” about a rubber ball that keeps gaining momentum with each new bounce, and ‘The Ifth of Oofth” (also known as “Farnworth’s Eye”) about the invention of a five-dimensional cube that starts out innocently enough but then keeps folding in on itself until it threatens to destroy the universe.

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT – 1983

First PB: Dell 17183, 1984.

“Beth learned of her mother’s death from a woman with a clipboard”.

With that first sentence, Walter Tevis begins the story of eight-year-old orphan Beth Harmon, a solemn and lonely child who begins playing chess with the janitor in the orphanage basement. She exhibits a natural aptitude for the complexities of the game. And ten years later she is a teenage wunderkind, winning chess tournaments and dreaming of defeating the Russian Grandmaster at the World Chess Championship.

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Pan 0-330-28241-7, 1984. First UK PB.

“In the Methuen Home in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Beth was given a tranquilizer twice a day. So were all the other children, to ‘even their dispositions’.”

I don’t play chess, but I was told you don’t have to know the game to enjoy this novel, so I gave it a try. It’s a masterpiece. It is also, cleverly, just a little bit like Tevis’s first book, THE HUSTLER. The game has been changed from pool to chess, but the obsession of the young challenger and the tense, dramatic contests are all here.

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Dell Laurel 50216-0, 1989.

Beth is basically a hot mess except for her chess playing. She drinks too much, is addicted to the drugs she was force fed as a child, has trouble maintaining relationships and lacks many social skills. But she is such a completely fascinating mess. Her journey from orphanage to adoption to local chess tourneys to Moscow is riveting, relentless and engrossing. Tevis created many memorable characters, but Beth Harmon is, for me, the most unforgettable of them.

Below; No Exit Press, 1993.

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Vintage (Random House), 2003. Two covers seen.

“She found the Newsweek with her picture in it… The piece said she was the most talented woman since Vera Menchik…What did being a woman have to do with it? …Questions about being a woman in a man’s world. …It wouldn’t be a man’s world when she was through with it.”

To enhance the character of Beth and give her believability, Tevis wove in certain incidents from the lives of real-life chess masters Lisa Lane and Robert Fischer.

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“When she brought her queen out, the Mexican stood up and said, “Enough. Enough. I resign the game.” For a moment she was furious, wanting to finish, to drive his king across the board and checkmate it. “You play a game that is awesome”, he said. “You make a man feel helpless.” ”

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Penguin, 2009. UK. Two covers seen.

“Sitting over the chessboard… she was actually poised over an abyss, sustained there only by the bizarre mental equipment that had fitted her for this elegant and deadly game.”

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“On the board there was danger everywhere. A person could not rest”.

Reading THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT can at times seem like a visit to some magical world with set rules of engagement. It reminds me of a song we used to hear…

“Move me on to any black square
Use me anytime you want
Just remember that the goal
Is for us all to capture all we want.”
   

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Weidenfeld & Nicholson Modern Classics (Orion), 2016. UK.

“She felt inconsequential – a child peering into the adult world. She hurried… feeling awkward and terribly alone.”

Heath Ledger loved THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT and thought it would make a great movie. He bought the rights in 2007 and planned to direct the film with Ellen Page starring as Beth. The project was canceled when he died in January 2008.

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Ishi Press, 2016.

Reuses cover art from the 1983 hardcover first edition.

“She sat behind the black pieces and said carefully in Russian, ‘Would you like to play chess?’ ”

Now for the good news. Netflix picked up the rights to THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, and a six-part series is currently being filmed for release in 2020. Anya Taylor-Joy is playing Beth Harmon.

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THE STEPS OF THE SUN – 1983

1st pb Berkley 0-425-07645-8, 1985.

THE STEPS OF THE SUN is my least favorite Tevis novel. It’s not a bad book, it just suffers from the company it keeps. THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT, which came out the same year, is an infinitely more fascinating book. And Tevis wrote three science fiction novels, but as Amazon UK says “THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH & MOCKINGBIRD are considered masterpieces of science fiction.” No mention of THE STEPS IN THE SUN.

For me the biggest problem is it has not aged well. Although set in the future, it already seems hopelessly dated.

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Collier 029865-X, 1990.

Modern readers will be put off by things Tevis perhaps never anticipated in 1983. The protagonist of THE STEPS OF THE SUN is a chauvinist millionaire. He treats all the woman in the book like dirt. That may have been a standard and acceptable leading man years ago, but today’s readers do not buy chauvinist millionaires as heroes. We think of them as villains. Or politicians. So it’s hard to root for this one in 2020.

From the back cover; “In the 2060s, the US is a second-rate power… Space travel is illegal. What the world needs is a hero. A man rich enough to build his own spaceship.”

THE COLOR OF MONEY, - 1984

PBO: Warner 0-446-32353-5. Cover art by Jim Dietz.

It is twenty years after THE HUSTLER, and Eddie Felson is now running a poolroom in Lexington, Kentucky. He gets an offer to play exhibition games for cable TV against his old rival, Minnesota Fats. All he has to do is convince Fats, now an old man living in Florida, to join him

Eddie quickly learns that the young pool hustlers now play a different kind of game called nine-ball. And so he sets out to become The Hustler again.

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Warner 34419-2, 1986. MTI.

Since Tevis’s story was not used for the movie, Richard Price’s screenplay takes off in a different direction. For example, the character of Minnesota Fats does not appear in the film. Instead a new character played by Tom Cruise is introduced. Paul Newman returns as Eddie and won the Academy Award for Best Actor, something he should have won in 1961. But if you saw the movie and then decided to read the book, you would wonder when Tom Cruise was going to show up.

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THE COLOUR OF MONEY Pan, UK 1985.

“Nine-ball was a young man’s game.”

THE COLOR OF MONEY is about growing old, about second chances, about reaching out for the prize with practice, patience, perseverance, and luck.

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Abacus, 1990. UK MTI.

The trick of the great writers like Tevis is the way they involve us in the action. Reading a bad book, you feel like a remote observer. With Tevis you feel like you are there, like these things are happening to you. You know the characters anguish, their joy, their loneliness, their terror. You are trapped in the moment.

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Thunder’s Mouth Press 1-56025-485-8, 2003.

“Tevis is unequaled when it comes to creating and sustaining the tension of a high stakes game. Even readers who have never lifted a cue will be captivated.” – Publisher’s Weekly.

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Weidenfeld & Nicholson Modern Classics (Orion), 2015. UK.

After a heart-wrenching attempt to be an art dealer with his new girlfriend, Eddie starts shooting pool again and signs up for a big tournament at Lake Tahoe. Walter Tevis, who had worked in a poolroom as a young man, understood this world from the inside and brought it to life in short stories and in the two books that bookend his writing career. THE COLOR OF MONEY was published on August 1, 1984.

Walter Tevis died eight days later.  

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Interior cover art for MOCKINGBIRD. Art by Lou Feck.

 

 


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